Saba: Adventure above and below the Caribbean

Story and photos By Peter Hicklenton and Joyce Kublin

The bucolic scenery of Amish country
The bucolic scenery of Amish country

It all started with an article in the Globe and Mail in January 2012. We were looking for something a little out of the ordinary for a winter holiday in the Caribbean and the island of Saba seemed a good fit. Located just a few kilometers off the south–west coast of Sint Maarten / Saint-Martin, the island is easily reachable from Canada either via WestJet flight from Toronto to Philipsburg (in Dutch Sint Maarten), then a connection to Saba: or the slightly more convoluted route we took on Air Canada via a Florida gateway.

Saba is a rarity in so many ways. An ancient volcano that seems to rise directly from the depths, it does not attract the cruise ships and night-life seeking crowds of nearby St. Maarten. For one thing there are no beaches (unless you count the gravelly strip known as the ‘wandering’ beach that appears and disappears on a seasonal basis). But it does appeal to divers, hikers, birders, and anyone who values exquisite scenery, classic Caribbean seascapes and a slower pace of life. That just 13km2 of land can support such a diversity of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems makes Saba unique, and our small group consisting of us and two friends from Halifax, NS, were excited to see it all!

From the international airport on St. Maarten, Saba evokes the mythical and mysterious island of Bali Hai from South Pacific. Glimpsed as a shadowy and rather brooding rocky mass often capped in cloud, it is easily distinguishable from the other low-lying islands in this part of the West Indies.

Getting to Saba from St. Maarten is certainly part of the experience. There are two obvious choices, the ferry that leaves from Billy Folly Road in the middle of the Simpson’s Bay hotel and time share area, or a short, 15 minute flight on local company Winair (Windward Island Airways).

For scheduling reasons, we went over on the ferry, and returned by air – but those who choose to fly there are in for a treat! That’s because Saba boasts the shortest commercial airstrip in the world at just 400m (shorter even than most aircraft carriers). Only select passenger planes and trained pilots can land here and it is certainly a breathtaking experience that involves a slow, corkscrew descent and a ‘one wheel, then the other’ landing.

Whichever way you land on Saba, nothing prepares you for the hair-raising ascent from sea-level to the centre of the tourist experience, the ‘town’ of Windwardside. There are in fact just three towns on the island linked by an amazing feat of engineering known locally as ‘The Road’.

From the ferry landing at Fort Bay, the concrete road climbs rapidly through a series of hairpin bends and 20%+ slopes to The Bottom – the administrative capital of Saba – and the site of the Saba University School of Medicine (students study here for 20 months before returning to Canada or the United States to intern).

We were looking for something a little out of the ordinary for a winter holiday in the Caribbean and the Island of Saba seemed a good fit.

Windwardside-from-Mt_Scenery.jpgSaba-tree-ferns.jpg Saba-on-the-Rocks_our-rented-house.jpg  Saba-Coast-2.jpg Saba-as-seen-from-St-Maarten.jpg The-Bottom.jpg Saba-Airport-at-Flat-Point.jpg Mt_Scenery-in-cloud.jpg Our-kitchen_Saba-on-the-Rocks.jpgOnly a few minutes after we begin our journey, the friendly taxi driver deposits us in front of our new home for the week – ‘Saba on the Rocks’ a two-story house we rented on-line. And what a perfect base it turned out to be! The two bedrooms, one bath were ideal for our party, but extra people can be accommodated in a self-contained ground floor apartment. Windwardside is about as ‘centered’ as you can be on Saba. From here the road continues through the third town (Hell’s Gate) to the airport at Flat Point (a small, ancient lava flow that is indeed the only piece of flat land on Saba).